Maple Sugaring Time

Type of Post: 
Best of Show
Destination: 
Quechee and St Johnsbury, VT
Best of Show: 
The Wood's bourbon-barrel-aged Maple Syrup

Maple Sugaring TimeMaple Syrup comes from the sap of maple trees, and now is the time when the sap is running.

Maple Sugaring time starts in late February and extends into early April, culminating for many at Maine Maple Sunday, New Hampshire Maple Weekend, or the annual Vermont Maple Festival away up in St. Albans, VT. 

The sap is collected in buckets, sometimes linked by many yards of plastic tubing, and then boiled down in a shed called a sugarhouse. You can read all (really all) about it in this 30pp Connecticut Maple Syrup Producers Manual.

St Johnsbury ChurchWe took a drive to Quechee Gorge to celebrate the first blue-sky Saturday in ages, but that wasn't far enough so we meandered up Route 5 along the frozen Connecticut River through Thetford and many smaller towns to St Johnsbury, at the northern terminus or I-93 beyond the White Mountains.

St Johnsbury has an Athenaeum that houses an enormous painting of Yosemite by Albert Bierstatd, one of my all-time favorites and a prime mover behind the national parks movement of the late 19th century, but the Atheneum was closed. Everything was closed, even the maple sugar places. St Johnsbury is beautiful, but it is small and remote, and it lacks the population to support its treasures.

View of NH from the banks of the Connecticut RiverThe drive from Quechee (I-89) to St Johnsbury (I-91 and I-93) is about an hour through rugged mountains and placid riverbanks, past farms and fields and livestock and postcard views everywhere. It does a soul good to be surrounded by open sky and rolling hills and spring just preparing to burst forth in all its wonderful bounty.

Vermont Gold and White VodkaOf course, in March in the hills, that bounty is already amply evident in the Maple Syrup and other product derived from the sap of the sugar maples and black maples across the countryside, many of which were planted for that purpose.

Best of Show has to go to Vermont Spirits, makers of Vermont Gold and Vermont White locally-sourced artisanal spirits. Vermont spirits makes vodkas: Vermont White is distilled from whey (the fermented sugar is milk sugar) and Vermont Gold is distilled form maple sap. When we visited them on Saturday, they were also selling a special limited-edition Vermont Gold made from first-run maple sap. It was delicious, but I could think of more uses for the regular Vermont gold...more on that in a minute.

4 grades of maple syrupAll maple syrup is not the same. First, there's first-run and later runs. First run has more stored sugar. Then when you boil it down, the first, lightest Fancy Grade is very different from the darker Grade B or even Grade C that has been longer in the pot.  There something of a discussion of this in the writeup on this site for the Maple Cream Pie - I made one with the Grade A Fancy and another with the Grade B and the differences were visible and significant, but not necessarily better for the more expensive Grade A Fancy.

Wood's Aged Maple SyrupJust when you think you've seen it all, you see something that you never would have thought of - like bourbon-barrel aged maple syrup! It's real, and it's real good.

I don't know about waffles or pancakes, but it's mighty fine in a Van Vleet cocktail or Jeremy's Maple Chaser. I plan to try it in some other cocktails, whiskey, rum, and even other formulas with the Vermont Gold vodka. It invites and rewards  experimentation. I would consider using it with butter as a dressing for a filet mignon or an excellent roast pork, and I bet it would be wonderful on butternut squash or roast pumpkin. Wood's Pure Maple Syrup can be found online or at some (very) select shops in east-central Vermont. 

Jeremy's Maple Chaser, photo by Vermont Spirits Distilling Company

What does one do with barrel-aged maple syrup and vodka from maple sap? Well, I challenge you to do better than Jeremy's Maple Chaser: a little aged syrup in the bottom of a glass, topped with Vermont Gold vodka and a couple of dashes of orange bitters. This cocktail is austere and beautiful, like a crisp late-winter morning when you know that Old Man Winter has lost his grip; sweet things are coming and he can't stop it!